Land Records and Glebe Lots: My House History Hunt

The vault and land records at the Lunenburg, Vermont Town Office

My recent blog post about the Class 4 road that runs by our camp in the hills elicited an intriguing comment from my neighbor and long-time town resident Amos Bell.  He told me that his maternal grandmother, Sadie Hagan Powell, had lived at the “Hagan Place,” (meaning our place), and taught school at the little schoolhouse across the road.   It was once a school, apparently, now it’s a tiny little camp under private ownership.

An email inquiry of the house’s most recent owners before us–who now live in Chittenden County–didn’t really clarify things, so one day this week, I went down to the town office to spend an hour or so combing through the land records to see what I could learn about whether Sadie Hagan’s family had indeed owned our house.

IMG_20160827_142452309Here are my title search notes from that examination.  I’m an attorney who practices mostly criminal defense and other litigated matters, not transactional law.  However, my senior law partners are experienced real estate lawyers, and they have trained me enough so that I’m competent in handling basic real estate transactions, including title searches, which I do professionally  from time to time.   These are a rough approximation of the kinds of notes I would take for a professional title search on behalf of a client seeking to buy a property, which would then typically be referenced in a formal document called a “title opinion.”

Vermont title standards only mandate that the attorney do a 40 year backward search to establish marketable title, but today, I went much further than that, because my goal was history, not marketable title.  (And of course, no need for the title opinion here!)

As the notes show, I didn’t start with the present day.  That’s because I know who owns the house now, and I know for sure who owned it previous to us.  I started instead in 1962, the date that the parents of our friends (former owners) acquired the house.  (The story of how Francis and Gertrude Nulty, of Somerset, New Jersey, came to visit, and then purchase this farm in the most remote reaches of northern Vermont is a fascinating story in its own right, for another day).


Working back from 1962, I reached something of a dead, or at least dormant, end with the deed in which Charles W. King sold the property to one Patrick McLaughlin, in 1889.  In almost all deeds, I expect to see a property description which includes a clear reference to the previous deed through which the seller acquired the property, including the date the seller acquired it, and the book and page number where that deed is recorded in the land records. These references are the keys to tracing chain of title.  But in the 1889 King to McLaughlin deed, that information just  isn’t there.   Instead, the deed simply makes reference to it being derived from Lot 66, of  “Glebe-right land.”

Ah hah!  This perked my interest and curiosity immediately, because Glebe lands, also known simply as “leased lands” are a unique (and largely arcane) Vermont institution, involving lands that generate revenue for school districts by being leased rather than actually owned.   Here might be an important piece of the puzzle, since I’d already gotten a clue from my neighbor that land in close proximity to ours belonged to a school back in the day.

“Glebe” is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as land belonging to or yielding revenue for a parish or other ecclesiastical benefice.”   During the pre-revolutionary era, the governors of New York and New Hampshire, acting on the authority of the English Crown, made numerous land grants all over Vermont,  designed to generate revenue for the Church of England and for their schools.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that all such glebe lots had schools or churches on them, although some did.  The operative, defining feature of the Glebe lots was that they were used to generate income for the churches or their schools.  Hence, the person who occupied a Glebe lot was not the owner, but rather a leaseholder, and paid annual rents to the church or school, in lieu of property taxes.  The Glebe lot leases usually contained language entitling the leaseholder to the use of the property “so long as grass grows and water runs,” or similar “language of durability.”

After the American Revolution, ownership of the Glebe lands–and their revenue–passed to the municipalities, who collected the annual rents and turned them over to school districts.  In 1947, the Vermont legislature passed a statute which allowed municipalities to sell glebe lands, as long as the proceeds went to the school district in town.  I first became familiar with the Glebe lots when I was Town Clerk in my little Town of Guildhall since they crop up periodically in the land records of virtually all Vermont towns.  Our town has several Glebe lots, but no one seems to be collecting any revenue on them any longer, their boundaries are unclear and confusing, and I rather doubt that many municipalities are even following the statutes relating to Glebe lots properly.   They just don’t matter much anymore.   Another example of a Glebe lot in Guildhall is the lot on Guildhall Hill where the old church monument sits.  I wrote a piece on this blog about the monument last year, which you can read here, if you care to.  At some point in the 1890s, that particular church, which no longer even had a building on that location,  decided to lease the Guildhall Hill glebe lot to the Town of Guildhall, for free, and “as long as trees grow and water runs,” the telltale Glebe lot language of durability.

Although Glebe lands are largely arcane and most towns don’t even keep track of them in any systemic way any longer, they still occasionally crop up as mini-obstacles in real estate transactions.  Read about this interesting little recent dust-up in the city of Burlington, from the newsweekly Seven Days, about when a family tried to sell their downtown condo.  A zealous buyer’s attorney for some reason discovered that the property may technically have been a glebe lot.  The buyer considered it a title defect, and so the sellers asked the city to figure out the status and if necessary, execute a quit claim deed to the sellers so that the title “defect” could be resolved to the buyer’s satisfaction.  (In the end, it was resolved by the City of Burlington executing a Quit Claim deed to the owner/sellers, for the nominal sum of $50.00)

It’s not altogether clear in the case of our house whether the land was actually glebe land, or whether it was carved out of previous Glebe lots and conveyed as a conventional deed.    The language in the deed itself is ambiguous and other documents don’t shed much light on it.  Being able to review a previous deed or lease that granted use or ownership of the property to Mr. Charles King would help, but finding that document, if it exists, would take a lot more time.

IMG_20160827_145454534By looking at an old lot map of the Town, I was at least able to push the date back a little further.  The map shows that in 1878, eleven years earlier, Charles King was still the owner.  That helps a bit.   Armed with that knowledge, however, I would still have to work backwards, going painstakingly through the index of each land record volume.  This is time-consuming.  Starting around roughly the 1890s-1900, all land transactions at the Town Clerk’s office are recorded in a centralized and cross-referenced card catalog, which expedites searching.  But before that, each book has its own index, so you’d have to review each index in each book, name by name.   Some day maybe I’ll get to it.

As for Sadie Hagan?  Well, she and her family’s residence are still a mystery.  My title search from now back to Mr. Charles King indicates that between 1878 and now, no Hagan ever owned this  property.  However, in the oldest four deeds, those dated 1889, 1897, 1902, and 1913, there is a reference in the property description that reads “…and bounded on the south by lands of James Hagan…”    But why then, does the card catalog index, which seems to be reasonably accurate, at least in 1913, show absolutely no property for any Hagan at all anywhere in the Town?   Is this a gap in the card catalog records? (Not unheard of in old New England land records).   Or might it mean that the “lands of James Hagan” alluded to in the deeds’ property descriptions were not actually owned by him, but were themselves Glebe lands, and the Hagans were leaseholders, not owners?    I have a feeling this one is going to remain a mystery.    When and if I find the time to spend hours poring over the indexes in each land record volume, going backward from 1878, I could conceivably find that a Hagan actually owned our property.   But until then….


3 responses to “Land Records and Glebe Lots: My House History Hunt”

  1. Ah…the rewards and frustrations of primary research! Sometimes great discoveries are made, other times, the mystery remains! Still, the process is its own reward!

  2. It’s ironic that the glebe lands, which were chartered to support the Anglican church, eventually ended up mostly benefitting non-conformist Protestant denominations.

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